The tandem of Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey accounted for more than 2,400 yards and 20 touchdowns last year.
The challenges West Virginia’s offense presents are numerous and varied. If you try and focus most of your attention on Tavon Austin running those underneath crossing routes like he did against Clemson in the Orange Bowl, then you’ve got man coverage on the outside with Stedman Bailey.
If you roll over and help on the outside with Bailey and you don’t have the right guy to account for Austin underneath, then you run the risk of him taking it up the sideline for a big gain.
There were times last year when Bailey burned teams on the deep ball or took an outside hitch to the house against single coverage, and then there were times when Austin was able to work sideline to sideline and outrun linebackers and safeties who were unable to keep up with him.
Keith Patterson, West Virginia’s co-defensive coordinator, was presented with that very predicament last year while trying to defend the Mountaineers when he was Pitt’s defensive coordinator. The biggest problem, according to Patterson, is that Dana Holgorsen forces you to defend the entire field.
And with Austin and Bailey, it’s almost like picking your poison.
“No. 1, starting with Geno (Smith) he throws the ball so effectively because he has such a strong arm and the receivers do a great job – really better than anybody I’ve ever been around - at coming back to the ball,” Patterson explained. “They’ll be a 20-yard break and they’re catching the ball 12 yards from the line of scrimmage. You don’t see that very often.
“Secondly, when we were going into the game you’ve got Sted who can stretch you vertically and then you’ve got Tavon who is moving across the field horizontally, so, now you’ve got a guy with a strong arm who can stretch the field vertically with a vertical threat and then you’ve got a guy who can take a negative yardage route and turn it into a 10-yard gain with a blink of an eye. That’s the problem that you have in defending this offense.”
Patterson said his biggest concern was avoiding the quick home run like Bailey’s 63-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter – West Virginia’s only points of the first half against the Panthers.
“We tried to just control Tavon,” Patterson said. “You’re not going to take away Tavon. What we tried to do was take away Sted, so we rolled the coverage to him and just tried to contain Tavon.”
Put in layman’s terms, Patterson was willing to let Austin get yardage horizontally and try and use the sidelines as a 12th man. If he caught the ball on the far hash that meant less field for him to work with to try and turn up field for additional yardage. He was OK with West Virginia gaining yards between the 20s, but he wanted to make the Mountaineers work for whatever they got and then tried to lock down on them in the red zone in a more confined area. Penalties, negative yardage plays or turnovers were a bonus.
“The issue you have is when Tavon is moving across the field at a high rate of speed and you get people trying to play top-down on him, well all of a sudden you do what? You soften yourself vertically and all of sudden there goes No. 3 running right by you for a touchdown,” Patterson explained.
Basically, what Patterson chose to do was roll the dice with Austin and hope his defensive players could keep him from turning up field.
“There were probably very few times in the course of that game where Sted didn’t have someone banging him at the line of scrimmage and then somebody over the top, so we tried to take away the vertical shot there and just took our chances on containing Tavon moving across the field,” he said.
The tactic worked extremely well because Pitt was also able to control West Virginia's running game.
The Mountaineers managed just 357 yards of total offense and 16 first downs against the Panthers and needed a late score to pull out a 21-20 come-from-behind victory. The running game produced minus-2 yards at halftime before finishing the game with 113 yards.
The kicker is when you have Bailey, Austin and the other two receivers accounted for and all of a sudden Holgorsen puts the ball into the hands of a tailback who can take it the distance.
Then what do you do?
“If you can incorporate a strong running game with what we can do throwing the football, it creates all types of problems,” Patterson admitted.